PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch the 2017 Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards this Sunday night at 9pm on CSN Bay Area.
SAN FRANCISCO - In five seasons with the Giants, George Kontos has become known for his durability. He is ready and willing to take the mound as often as needed, and it's a trait he displayed more than a decade before his big league debut.
Kontos was a workhorse for his freshman team at Niles West High School in the suburbs of Chicago, and in the final game of the season, he pitched seven strong innings for a big win, stubbornly pushing through some soreness in his right elbow. As he walked back to the team bus with his coach, Chris Schwarz, Kontos admitted that his arm had been bugging him a bit. Schwarz told Kontos to rest over the summer, saying he had the tools to pitch beyond the high school level.
For the young, athletic right-hander, a lightbulb went off. Kontos recalls it as "probably the most important high school conversation I ever had with any baseball coach." Everything else suddenly took a back seat to baseball.
"The fact that he thought I had the chance and ability to play at the college level really made me commit to the fact that this baseball thing could really be for real," Kontos said.
It was certainly the right path, one that sent Kontos to Northwestern on a scholarship, and then the New York Yankees as a fifth-round pick. In San Francisco, he has become an indispensable part of the bullpen, a fan favorite, and a two-time World Series champion.
Kontos has averaged 50 appearances for the Giants, often going multiple innings and getting a starter out of a jam. On Friday, however, he will shine the spotlight on someone else. Kontos will honor Schwarz at the third annual Coaching Corps Game Changer Awards, an event during which top local athletes celebrate the influence of coaches on their lives and the community. The awards ceremony will be broadcast on Jan. 29 at 9 p.m. on CSN Bay Area.
Kontos will honor a coach who helped set him on the path to the big leagues but didn't stop there. The two have formed a lasting friendship, texting occasionally during the season and getting together for lunch or beers whenever Kontos returns home. The pitcher, now 31, still fondly remembers the lessons Schwarz taught his young ballplayers.
"He was always looking at the bigger picture," Kontos said. "Each game was important, yes, but he preached dedication, discipline, and respect to your peers and the game which is what made him as impactful as he was."
Those beliefs were on full display during a game earlier that freshman season. Niles West was blowing out an opponent in the early innings, but the players had lost their focus on the game. Schwarz pulled Kontos and the team's other standout, a shortstop named Tony, shocking the other players. Years later, Schwarz told Kontos he was trying to make an example of his two best players.
"He wouldn't sacrifice just winning for behavior that he didn't think was tolerable," Kontos said.
Schwarz remembers Kontos as a skinny kid who had advanced skills but was also determined and competitive. He saw the same traits in Kontos on the basketball court and the golf course.
"He just had that natural ability," Schwartz said. "So clearly, just some overall natural athletic ability, but a really intelligent athlete as well."
He remembers a young Kontos as someone who simply didn't want to come out of a game, and says he developed quickly over the course of that season. For Schwarz, entering his 26th season coaching freshman baseball, much of the work came away from the field.
"I tell my players, the kids that I coach, over and over again, that it's an honor and a privilege to play the game of baseball and that it deserves your best effort," Schwarz said. "I think I spent more of my time talking to him about the right mental approach to the game. In terms of physical gifts, you know, a lot of that is not coachable. He had those things but then he had the ability to make something with them."
That ability and drive led Kontos from Niles West to the NL West. Tonight he'll honor a man who helped make him believe the journey was possible.